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Not Just Another Report

by A. Maureen Rouhi
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

“Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences,” a report released late last year by the American Chemical Society, is prompting thoughtful conversations. On page 51, Senior Editor Celia Arnaud offers a sampling of opinions. Disagreements about specifics are expected with any report. This one is unusual for the praise it gets for candidness: “It was extraordinarily refreshing to read something coming from ACS that was reasonably frank about what most graduate students and postdocs would describe as a dismal job market,” Christopher J. Cramer of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, told Arnaud.

The report comes from a commission appointed by 2012 ACS President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri. It is not only candid but also thoughtful and thorough in its analysis of the state of U.S. graduate education in chemistry and recommendations on how to improve it. One of its more striking conclusions is that the current funding of students through research grants presents serious conflicts between students’ education and investigators’ research productivity. It urges a decoupling of more student-support funds from research grants. Funders should experiment with “graduate program grants” made available to departments to support several semesters of students’ work, the report says.

Some say decoupling would diminish the quality of research, especially in the extreme case of students with their own funds. I say, let’s test that hypothesis. The National Science Foundation may already have data to compare outcomes from students funded with fellowships and those supported by researchers with NSF grants. Better still, NSF could design experiments that would allow direct apple-to-apple comparisons. How about it, NSF?

I was drawn to the report’s section on the purposes of graduate education. Anyone who trains graduate students, and every prospective graduate student, should at least look at Chart 1 of the report, which enumerates graduate education’s goals for society and for individuals. I list them here in slightly abridged form.

For society, the purposes are to (1) for the Ph.D. level, develop scientists and engineers who can design and carry out independent research leading to new knowledge; (2) for the master’s level, develop scientists and engineers with specialized knowledge beyond the undergraduate level; (3) prepare the chemical science technical workforce for industry and government; (4) provide faculty to educate and inspire students interested in the chemical sciences; (5) involve students in advancing the science through investigation and discovery; (6) provide intellectual underpinnings for continued national leadership in science and technology; (7) cultivate a professional culture that fosters innovation; (8) generate knowledge that leads to economic development; (9) create solutions for needs in energy, health, climate change, security, and defense; and (10) develop leaders who can articulate scientific and technological issues and help the nation make wise choices in an increasingly technology-dependent global society.

For individuals, the goals are to (1) teach students how to enter a new field, pose worthwhile problems, generate new knowledge, and evaluate findings; (2) impart to students in a timely way the technical knowledge, skills, and professional qualities of integrity and effective communication needed for rewarding careers; (3) help students apply chemical processes to problem solving, product creation, and translation of scientific knowledge to practice; (4) foster fearlessness in approaching new technical areas and operational challenges; (5) cultivate and preserve students’ curiosity, joy of discovery, openness to new ideas, and desire for lifelong learning; and (6) develop skills needed to compete in an evolving interdisciplinary and global environment.

Faculty should ask: Am I preparing students to fulfill these roles in society? Students should ask: Is this really what I want or need from my graduate education?

Shakhashiri and the commission deserve thanks for their thought-provoking study. Academia and funding institutions should continue the conversations about how we put people through graduate school. Numerous examinations of this topic have come and gone. Maybe this one will yield results.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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